Lessons Learned – Part 2

So to follow on from my penultimate post regarding lessons learned, I thought I would carry on in a separate post due to my getting carried away writing far too many words in the previous one about my camera :).

So my second take away from my week in Arolla is a pretty simple one, and that is:

You really must train beforehand, and train hard.

No-one to my knowledge ever came down from a 20,000 foot mountain saying it was too easy. I have heard of plenty of (the likes of) marathon runners who have ‘failed’ trying to summit Kilimanjaro as they ended up fatigued or getting AMS. Bizarre almost, but true. And I don’t mean the word ‘failure’ here in its literal sense I should say. No-one, and I mean no-one, fails when trying to summit a mountain. The mountain either lets them get up there, or it doesn’t, and that’s how I believe it is.

As an adjunct here, the fantastic Alan Arnette blog on his Seven Summits for Alzheimer’s mission (http://www.alanarnette.com/), saw him recently have to abort his attempt on Denali. The group sat for a week at high camp at about 17,000 feet whilst being buffeted by snow and high winds, and eventually had to say “we have to go down, not up”. They had precious little left in the way of supplies, and the season was coming to a close, and to go further would have been to risk lives. They came down. Good for them. Failure? No way ever!

The debate on Alan’s blog afterwards centred around people saying “sorry to hear about your failure Alan” which is about the most insulting and ignorant thing I have ever heard. Do these people know what Denali is like? I mean, I don’t, but I am sure as heck that I respect it, and know and understand that to even try to attempt a mountain inside the Arctic circle at the north end of Alaska at temperatures up to -40 degrees (Fahrenheit or Centigrade, take your pick) is an outrageous thing to do in the first place. And as the brilliant mountaineer Ed Viesturs wrote in his outstanding book “No Shortcuts to The Top” (Ed is one of just a handful of people on earth who have climbed all 14 of the world’s >8,000m summits), “Reaching the summit is optional. Getting down is mandatory”. Enough said.

Anyway, getting away from my digression, in my case on this recent trip, I thought before I went that I was in reasonably good shape. I had recently (in the previous three weeks) completed a 90 mile cycling sportive, and had trained for that with about 400 miles cycling in the four weeks leading up to it. I had also been spinning and done a few other gym sessions at least once a a week. It wasn’t however enough, not for me. I ended up struggling up some of the strenuous climbs to the point of considering turning back, and to have to think that way for me, is indeed close the the aforementioned ‘f’ word.

The other thing about fitness is that cycling (and spinning classes, tough though they can be) is not at all like being in the mountains. Cycling certainly gives you good aerobic fitness and stamina, and some decent leg strength, but it is way different really, and misses out on two things.

One is upper body and also core strength. In Switzerland I was carrying a 25/30lb pack every day, and not being used to it, it made my shoulders ache after four, five and six hours. As a result of my shoulders aching, the rest of me found it harder to compensate, and more effort was put in by my legs to keep me going. My legs always felt fine in themsleves, but I found my heart rate was up to the max, probably at 90% or so for some considerable time, and that isn’t really sustainable for me, especially as I am no spring chicken anymore.

The other thing is that in terms of training for mountains, is that there is simply nothing that helps you prepare for them as well as mountains themselves. The ‘art form’ that is walking (steeply) uphill with a weighty pack on your back for hours on end is the best way by far of aiming to do just the same thing. Everything is exacerbated by altitude too when you are up there, and so if you are used to just doing it ad nauseam, then your body just does it, simple as that. It is the same with many things…

Take step training for example. I am (now) using a Stair Climbing trainer like the one pictured below:

When I first got on this thing, five minutes was horrible. It has a heart rate monitor too, and if you push yourself, then when you are at about 10 minutes of hard graft your heart gets to pretty high levels. Mine for example was getting to about 155 or so. I have now however been using it about three times a week for a month since I got back from Switzerland. Now after 30 minutes on there (which I couldn’t have even managed previously) my heart rate is at about 120, and it stays pretty constant for the last half of the time that I am on the machine.

So, to conclude, you have to do mountain training to not just ‘succeed’, but to be able to even attempt, let alone enjoy, your mountains. I should know this by now, and of course I do, but I really need to practice what I preach a whole lot better than I do.

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